A federal court ruling that upholds a North Carolina law restricting the ability of local governments to provide high-speed Internet service could disconnect hundreds of people in Pinetops.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Federal Communications Commission overstepped its authority last year when it pre-empted laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that limited local broadband efforts.

North Carolina lawmakers adopted the so-called Level Playing Field Act in 2011 that prevented cities and towns from offering broadband service outside their municipal boundaries and prohibited them from subsidizing such services with local funds. The law also required any city or town looking to get into the broadband business to get approval from voters.

Lawmakers said the legislation would ensure that local taxpayers weren’t saddled with expensive systems and that municipal services couldn’t unfairly undercut services provided by telecommunications companies. But proponents of municipal broadband, such as the city of Wilson, said such competition would induce telecom firms to expand their services to more rural areas and drop their prices.

Frustrated by its inability to attract Internet service providers to the city, Wilson leaders borrowed $35 million in 2008 to build its Greenlight broadband network. Because it had already expanded outside the city limits before the 2011 law had passed, Greenlight was allowed to cover all of Wilson County.

When the FCC overrode the state law last year, officials crossed into Edgecombe County and began wiring Pinetops, where the city has provided electrical power for years.

“We’ve got the fastest Internet in eastern North Carolina,” Pinetops Town Administrator Lorenzo Carmon said. “Today, people’s Internet here is faster than it is in Chapel Hill.”

About 140 households and businesses in the town of about 1,300 people have been connected to Greenlight, and about 600 more are set to receive it, officials said. But the appeals court ruling could take everything offline.

Will Aycock, Greenlight’s general manager, said lawyers are reviewing the ruling, but he doesn’t know yet whether the service can continue installing broadband in Pinetops.

“Broadband is critical infrastructure, and it’s important for everyone who can make contributions to employing this infrastructure in our state to do so,” Aycock said.

Pinetops Mayor Steve Burress said broadband access is critical for a small town like Pinetops, where the only bank will soon close and growth is hard to come by.

“We’re looking forward to it being something to help us develop the town economically,” Burress said. “This is something we’ve got that a lot of places don’t have, and we’re very concerned about the possibility of losing it.”


Reporter: Bryan Mims
Photographer: Bill Herrero
Web Editor: Matthew Burns